Repost: Ki Teitzei

September 11, 2019 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our adventure begins before dawn.  Everything we still own that we are not taking on the airplane tomorrow is now packed away in our storage unit.  (We also loaned our car to our son and daughter-in-law.)  At 5:00 a.m. the motel shuttle will take us to the airport, and we will fly the first leg of our trip: Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts.  This is the trip we have spent years waiting for, the one that will eventually take us to Israel.

Here is my 2015 post on this week’s Torah portion: Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.

Repost: Shoftim

September 5, 2019 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Four things are called toeivah (abominable, repugnant) in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: offering defective animals as a sacrifices for God, worshiping other gods, keeping carved images of gods, and practicing magic.

My 2015 blog post on these abominations pointed out that while it is fine to avoid doing things we find repugnant, it is immoral to kill human beings who do repugnant things.

I still believe that.  But when I reviewed my 2015 post, I decided to rewrite the last part of it.  Since the 2016 American election I have become more concerned about government-sponsored heartlessness than about individual heartless deeds.  So here is my rewritten post: Shoftim: Abominable.

Repost: Re-eih

August 27, 2019 at 9:00 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment

One can eat meat, but not blood, according to this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”).

Only be strong, do not eat the blood!  Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the meat. (Deuteronomy 12:23)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat.

Like humans, animals are animated by a soul that experiences moods, appetites, and desires.  The Torah locates that soul in the arterial blood.

Not only must the blood of an animal be drained and discarded before the meat can be eaten, but the animal must also be kosher.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, Moses repeats the rules for kosher animals.

And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat. (Deuteronomy 14:6)

Birds may also be eaten, but not birds of prey.  Fish may be eaten as long as they have fins and scales.  Any other animals, including shellfish and flying insects, are forbidden in this week’s Torah portion.

Fully observant American Jews heading to Europe would be planning out how to eat only kosher meat, they way they do at home.

I am not strict about keeping kosher.  However, I am planning to continue avoiding meat altogether.  It was hard for me to give up meat 23 years ago, but I did it.  I do not believe an animal’s nefesh is only in its arterial blood, the way the portion Re-eih implies.  I believe that eating any meat, drained of blood or not, is participating in the slaughter of an animal that, when alive, had an emotional life–moods, appetites, and desires–just like humans do.

For some people, honoring the death of the animal with a blessing, a prayer, or another ritual is enough.  Maybe they are right.  After all, everything we eat used to be alive in some sense.  The book of Genesis says God created humans to eat fruit from living trees for nourishment; modern science points out that nature made us omnivores.

Canaan dog

But I cannot watch a dog joyfully greet its roommates, or crows defend an injured member of their flock, and then go and eat meat.  I confess I make an exception for fish, which are less aware of moods and desires than birds and mammals–less like us.  (Fish also provide the B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids my omnivore body needs.)

When I get to Israel, I hope my diet will be easier than in America.  The Jewish prohibition against mixing meat and milk means, I believe, that I need only ask if a dish is “kosher dairy”.

But in Europe, I will ask in the local language whether there is any “meat” or poultry in a dish I might order.  There, as here, I will hope the waiters know what I am talking about.

To read my earlier blog post about the Torah’s version of not eating the soul of an animal, click on Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood.

 

 

 

Repost: Eikev

August 21, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

I am exhausted from a week of luxury on an Alaskan cruise.  The cruise reminded me that it is easy to get too much of a good thing, to go from satisfaction to satiation to surfeit.  I am proud of myself for not taking seconds when I faced an abundance of tasty food.  But I wore myself out with a surfeit of experiences.  The concerts and shows on the ship, as well as the tours and sights at each stop, were all enjoyable and even enriching.  But now that I am home again, packing and making last-minute arrangements for a more important journey, I wish I had more energy.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, also considers the concepts of satisfaction and surfeit.  So I brushed up my 2017 post, Eikev: No SatisfactionClick on the link to read it.

Repost: Devarim & Va-etchannan

August 7, 2019 at 9:16 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A journey begins before you leave.  We won’t begin our journey to new lands until September, but for most of August we are immersed in sorting through our worldly goods and packing them for storage.  So I am starting to post links to my favorite past blog posts this week.  (See my note at the end of last week’s post, Massey: Stages of a Journey.)

Next week I am taking a break from sorting and packing to see family in Alaska.  So I decided to share my post from 2015 about the Torah portions for both this week and next:

Devarim & Va-etchannan: Enough Already

Masey: Stages of a Journey

July 31, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Posted in Exodus/Shemot, Masey | 1 Comment

Caravan, by James Tissot ca. 1900

The last Torah portion in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:

These are the masey the Israelites when they departed from the land of Egypt in their troops by the power of Moses and Aaron.  Moses wrote down their departures for maseyhem at the word of God.  And these were the maseyhem for their departures:  (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:1-2)

masey (מַסְעֵי) = stages of the journey of.  (A form of the noun massa (מַסַּע) = breaking camp, travelling on, journeying, stage of a journey.  Derived from the root verb nasa (נָסַע) = pulled out, started out, uprooted.)

maseyhem (מַסְעֵיהֶם) = their stages of travel, their journeys.  (Another form of the noun massa.)

The Torah then lists 42 locations, from Ramses, the city where the Israelites assembled to leave Egypt, to the bank of the Jordan River, where the book of Numbers ends.  In the list are a few geographical notes to help locate the campsites, and three references to events that occurred on the way.

Which three events?

  1. At Rameses

Vayisu from Ramses on the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month.  On the day after Passover the Israelites departed with a high hand, before the eyes of all the Egyptians.  The Egyptians were burying those that God had struck down, every firstborn; and against their gods God had done justice.  (Numbers 33:3-4)

vayisu (וַיִּסְעוּ) = and they pulled out.  (A form of the verb nasa.)

The extra information about the first location, the Egyptian city of Ramses, is that the Israelites left the morning after the night of the tenth and final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn;1 that the Egyptians no longer tried to stop them; and that their God was stronger than the Gods of the Egyptians.  Therefore the Israelites left proudly and openly, confident that God was on their side.

  1. At Refidim

Vayisu from Alush and they camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.  (Numbers 33:14)

This sentence refers to a story in the book of Exodus/Shemot that begins:

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

Vayisu, the whole community of Israelites, from the wilderness of Sin for maseyhem at the word of God.  And they camped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink.  And they argued with Moses, and they said: “Give us water so we can drink!”  And Moses said to them: “Why do you argue with me?  Why do you test God?”  (Exodus 17:1-2)

At the end of the story, the Torah reports that the Israelites said:

“Is God among us or not?”  (Exodus 17:7)

Eleven times during their travels from Egypt to the Jordan River the Israelites complain about the conditions and reveal their lack of trust in God, Moses, or both.2  But this week’s Torah portion picks out only the time at Refidim, when  God tells Moses to address the problem by striking a rock with his staff, and water comes out.

Why pick this complaint over any of the other ten times3 the Israelites test the leadership of either God or Moses?  Why not include the time when Moses strikes the rock but fails to give God credit for the water?4  Or the confrontation at the Reed Sea?5  Or the complaint about food that led to God sending daily manna?6  Or the demand for the golden calf?7  Or the refusal to cross into Canaan at its southern border, which led to another 38 years in the wilderness?8

  1. At Hor

Vayisu from Kadeish and they camped at Hor the Mountain, at the edge of the land of Edom.  And Aaron the priest went up to Hor the Mountain at the word of God, and he died there in the 40th year of the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt, on the fifth month, on the first of the month.  And Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor the Mountain.  And the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the Israelites.  (Numbers 33:37-40)

Both of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, die on the journey.  Both are leaders of the people, but only Aaron’s death is mentioned in the list.  It might be sexism, or it might be because his death establishes the succession of high priests.  Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Elazar, climbs the mountain with his father and Moses, and Aaron dies after Moses has removed his vestments and dressed Elazar in them.9

But why does the Torah portion Masey also mention the king of Arad?  In a brief story earlier in Numbers, this king hears of the approaching Israelites, attacks them, and takes some captives.

Then the Israelites vowed a vow to God and said: “If you actually give this people into our hands, then we will dedicate their towns to destruction.”  And God listened to the voice of the Israelites and gave [them] the Canaanites …  (Numbers 21:2-3)

They were testing God again, but not complaining.  In the Torah, dedicating something captured in battle to destruction means dedicating the whole battle to God instead of keeping some booty for personal benefit.  Perhaps the Torah mentions the king of Arad here to show that the Israelites are not always rebellious; once in a while they dedicate everything to God.

Not at Mount Sinai

Why does the Torah pick these three events, and no others—not even what happened at Mount Sinai?  The Torah portion merely says:

Vayisu from Refidim and they camped in the wilderness of Sinai.  Vayisu from the wilderness of Sinai and they camped at Kivrot Hata-avah.  (Numbers 33:15-16)

Yet at Mount Sinai the Israelites experience the presence of God in a revelation full of smoke, fire, thunder, and earthquake.10  God gives them the Ten Commandments, first in a voice only Moses can bear to hear, then engraved on  pair of stone tablets, twice.11  At Mount Sinai the Israelites believe Moses will never return from the mountaintop, and worship Golden Calf.12  At Mount Sinai the Israelites make covenants with God, verbal and sacrificial, and their elders see God’s feet.13  At Mount Sinai they craft a portable tent-sanctuary so God will dwell among them.14

During their year in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the attitude of the Israelites toward God swings between terror and total devotion, with a side-trip into ecstatic idol-worship.

The three events mentioned in this week’s list, however, focus on the attitude of the Israelites toward God when they are on their journey, not pausing in ecstasy.  At Ramses the Israelites who leave with Moses are confident that God can and will protect them.  At Refidim they doubt that God is with them.  At Hor they accept their high priest’s successor (a sign that they will also accept Moses’ successor), and they rededicate themselves to God.

No Itinerary

Vayisu from the hills of the Avarim and they camped in the deserts of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.  (Numbers 33:48)

The list ends where the Israelites are waiting to cross the river into Canaan, their “promised land”.

An itinerary is a planned route for a journey, listing locations and transportation between them in the order one has determined.   But Moses’ list in Masey covers only the locations the Israelites have already camped at.  It follows their route in the past, not the future.  The added comments on three events mark their attitudes toward God in the past, but do not predict their attitudes toward God in the future.

When the Israelites travel, they cannot even predict where their next campsite will be.  For each stage of their journey, they follow the God’s pillar of cloud and fire to their next stopping place.15

*

I am preparing now to go on a journey through Europe to Israel, crossing two seas to get to the same land the Israelites in the Torah reached by crossing the Jordan River.  My husband and I have been longing to take this trip since the turn of the century, and now we can finally do it.

We have made an itinerary.  We are paying for our reservations for the first three months, and making tentative plans in case we can extend our trip to nine months.  But even when you have pre-paid for airfare and lodging, things happen along the way; you do not really know where you will find yourself.  The definitive list is the one you make at the end of your travels.

***

What will happen to this blog while we are moving our things into storage, then moving ourselves from country to country?

This is the last new blog post I will have time to write for months.  Knowing that makes me wistful.  But every week I plan to look at the posts I have written on that week’s Torah portion over the last eight years, and choose one of my favorites.

Then I will e-mail the link to you, my readers.  From time to time I will add my photos of old synagogues and other relevant sites in Europe and Israel.  I will keep you posted on the masey of Melissa and Will Carpenter!

  1. Exodus 12:1-32. Exodus 12:37 begins: Vayisu, the Israelites, from Ramses …
  2. I am not counting the times in the book of Numbers when only a small subset of Israelites complained: Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12:1-2, 250 Levites in 16:1-11, two Reuvenites in 16:12-5, and Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:10-12.
  3. The other ten times are Exodus 14:10, Exodus 15:23-24, Exodus 16:2-3, Exodus 32:1-10, Numbers 11:1-2, Numbers 11:4-20, Numbers 14:1-4, Numbers 17:6-15, Numbers 20:2-5, and Numbers 21:4-7.
  4. Numbers 20:2-13.
  5. Exodus 14:10-12.
  6. Exodus 16:1-4.
  7. Exodus 32:1-10.
  8. Numbers 14:1-4.
  9. Numbers 20:22-29.
  10. Exodus 19:16-20, 20:15-18.
  11. Exodus 20:1-18, 31:18, 32:15-19, 34:1-4, and 34:27-28.
  12. See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.
  13. Exodus 19:1-9, 24:3-13. See my posts Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing, and Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.
  14. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  15. Exodus 13:20-22 and 40:36-38.

 

Pinchas: New Moon

July 24, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Pinchas, Samuel 1 | 1 Comment

The moon waxes to a full, bright circle; then it wanes until it disappears.  In the Hebrew calendar the new moon is not the invisible one, but the first thin curved line to appear the blue daytime sky.  It sets just after the sun sets, and the first day of a month begins.

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra prescribes offerings at the altar for annual holidays, for Shabbat every week, and for morning and evening every day.  But the new moon is not singled out for its own monthly celebration until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

And on your days of rejoicing, and at your appointed times, and on the beginnings of chadesheykhem, you shall blow trumpets over your rising-offering and over your slaughter-sacrifices of your wholeness offerings.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:10)

chadesheykhem (חָדְשֵׁיכֶם) = your months.  (A form of the noun chodesh, חֺדֶשׁ = month, new moon.  From the root verb chadash, חָדַשׁ = renew.)

New moon at the altar

What offerings are prescribed for the new moon?  We find out in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.

And at the beginnings of chadesheykhem you shall offer a rising-offering for God: two bulls of the herd, and one ram, and seven yearling lambs, unblemished.  (Numbers 28:11)

(I refer to an olah (עֺלָה) as a “rising-offering” because the Hebrew word comes from the verb alah (עָלָה) = rose, ascended, went up.  What rises in an olah is smoke, when the animal is completely burned up for God.)1

Each animal is burned with its own measure of fine flour mixed with oil,

…a rising-offering of soothing scent, a fire-offering for God.  And their libations2 shall be wine, half a hin for a bull, and a third of a hin for the ram, and a quarter of a hin for a lamb.  This is the rising-offering of chodesh in chadesho for the chakeshey the year.  And one hairy goat for a guilt-release offering3 for God …  (Numbers 28:14)

chadesho (חַדְשׁוֹ) = its renewal.  (From the root verb chadash.)

chadeshey (חָדְשֵׁי) = months of, new moons of.  (Another form of chodesh.)

What we learn about the observance of the new moon in the book of Numbers is that there must be a rising-offering on the altar with a specific combination of animals, grain products, and wine; and that a trumpet is blown when the offering takes place.

New moon at the table

When King Saul becomes insanely jealous of his young general David, he orders David killed.  David talks with Jonathan, his best friend and Saul’s son and heir.

And David said to Jonathan: “Hey, chodesh is tomorrow and I should definitely sit with the king to eat.  But let me go, and I will hide in the countryside until the third evening.”  (1 Samuel 10:5)

Jonathan urges his beloved friend to flee, and the two young men work out the logistics.

This passage is famous for Jonathan’s declaration of love and allegiance to David.  But it also shows that at the time of King Saul (around the 11th century BCE) the observance of the new moon included an obligatory feast at the king’s table for his officers.

New moon with a prophet

The woman of Shunem makes a room on the rooftop of her house where the prophet Elisha can stay whenever he visits the town.  When her son dies suddenly, she lays him on Elisha’s bed, then goes out and asks her husband for a servant and a donkey so she can hurry to Elisha.

But he said: “Why are you going to him today?  It is not chodesh and not Shabbat.”  And she said: “Peace!”  And she saddled the donkey …  (2 Kings 4:23-24)

The woman tells no one that the boy has died, and she talks Elisha into coming back at once with her.  The prophet miraculously brings her son back to life.

This story indicates that during the reign of King Yehoram of the northern kingdom of Israel (9th century BCE), travelling prophets conducted ceremonies for their followers on the sabbath every week, and on the new moon every month.

New moon outdoors

After the Roman army destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was never rebuilt as a Jewish temple, and animal offerings gradually ceased for Jews.4  The old method of worship was replaced by prayers and good deeds.

Only a few centuries after the fall of the second temple, Jews were going outside to look at the moon during the week when it grew from a new moon to a half moon, and reciting a blessing.  The Talmud says that blessing the new month at the proper time is like greeting the face of the divine presence (Shekhinah), so one should say the blessing while standing.  The full blessing, according to the Talmud, is:

Blessed are you God, our God, king of the universe, who by his word created the heavens, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts.  He set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task.  And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth.  And to the moon he said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those he carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their Creator for the name of his glorious kingdom.  Blessed are you, God, who renews the months.  ((Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 42a)5

This formal prayer (in Aramaic) praises God for the creation of an orderly universe including the moon, the monthly renewal of moonlight, and an undefined renewal of human beings.  The focus is on the heavenly bodies, personified.

New moon in the synagogue

For centuries, Jewish congregations were led outside once a month to look at the moon and recite the blessing above.  This communal blessing happened right after the havadalah ceremony concluded the Shabbat that fell during those seven days.

But as more and more Jews went home after morning Shabbat services instead of staying with their rabbi all day through havdalah, a new custom arose to observe the new moon.

Now the morning Shabbat services before each new moon include an extra section of prayer and blessing in the Torah service.  First the congregation chants the following prayer (in Hebrew):

May it be your will God, our God and God of our forefathers, shetechadeish for us this chodesh for goodness and for blessing.  And may it give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of right livelihood, a life of bodily health, a life full of awe of heaven and fear of wrongdoing, a life without shame or disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life of love of Torah and awe of heaven, a life of fulfillment by God of all desires of our heart for the good.  Amen, selah!

shetechadeish (שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ) = to renew.  (A form of the verb chadash in “Prayerbook Hebrew”.)

The focus here is on blessings for humans.  In a traditional Jewish prayerbook, prayers that ask God for blessings tend to be thorough.

Next the service leader holds the Torah scroll and announces which day the new moon will appear in the coming week, saying a shorter prayer before and after the announcement.6

If the new moon is scheduled to appear at the end of Shabbat, the traditional service adds a reading of the scene between David and Jonathan mentioned above.7

New moon in women’s circles

A more recent practice is for a circle of Jewish women to gather on the evening of the new moon, the first day of each Hebrew month, to conduct their own rituals.  These have not been codified, but rosh chodesh (“beginning of a month”) groups are increasingly popular in America.

*

Celebrating the new moon follows the same trajectory as many other Jewish observances in history.  In the Torah, the new moon is an occasion for a special offering at the altar, presided over by priests.  After temple worship was replaced by communal prayers, rabbis developed different ways of celebrating the new moon, starting with a concrete act (saying a blessing outside while looking at the moon) and changing to a more abstract prayer in the synagogue.  Finally, in the last half-century, liberal Jews have been developing their own innovative celebrations.

But is it still worthwhile to devote time and energy to thanking God for each new moon?

The gravity of the moon still creates the tides in our world.  The changing moon still strikes many human beings as beautiful and awe-inspiring.  Thanking God for the moon helps us to remember that like everything else in nature, it is a gift; we did not make it.

And in Hebrew the new moon, chodesh, also signals renewal, chadash.  Something new is possible for all human beings, every month and every minute, from birth to death.  We are never as stuck as we think.

  1. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.
  2. See my post Emor: Libations.
  3. Here chataat (חַטָּאת) means an offering to remove guilt for a misdeed.
  4. Samaritans, descendants of the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Samaria, still sacrifice sheep on Mount Gezirim for Passover.
  5. sefaria.org , translation from Aramaic by William Davidson.
  6. After that, the congregation anywhere outside of Israel recites another blessing.
  7. 1 Samuel 20:18-42.

Balak: Being Open

July 17, 2019 at 8:41 pm | Posted in Balak | Leave a comment

At last, after 40 years in the wilderness, a large company of ex-slaves from Egypt camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from their “promised land” of Canaan.  They have just conquered two small kingdoms of Amorites,1 which proves that God is on their side.  And when the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam tries to curse them in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God keeps putting words of blessing in his mouth instead.2  The Israelites expect to cross into Canaan with the help of their God.

Then they get invitations from their neighbors, the Midianite Moabites3 living near their campsite.  These tribes are inhabitants of the area that used to belong to the Amorite king of Cheshbon until the Israelites defeated him and took over.

Moab Leads Israel into Sin, by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab.  They invited the people to slaughter offerings to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.  Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

Peor (פְּעוֹר) = a place name meaning Wide Opening.  (From the root verb pa-ar, פָּעַר = open wide.)

The verb pa-ar occurs only four times in the Hebrew Bible, all in reference to mouths opening wide.  Sheol (death) opens its mouth wide and the living fall down into it,4 a psalmist opens his mouth wide as he pants for God’s commandments,5 Job’s tormentors open their mouths wide against him,6 and Job remembers when men came to him for wise advice and their mouths opened wide to receive it like rainfall.7

One traditional interpretation of the name Peor is that the Midianite Moabites living near the Israelite campsite were afraid of the horde of conquerors, so they came up with a scheme for integrating the two communities on a friendly basis.  The Moabites would display their daughters to the Israelite men.  These young women would then invite the men to a banquet that included meat from animal sacrifices to Baal Peor, the local god of Peor.  The Israelites would eat, drink, and have intercourse with the Moabite women.8

This outcome would not be ideal from the Moabite point of view; fathers in the Ancient Near East preferred to sell their daughters as brides.  But at least if their scheme works, the Moabites might escape being killed or enslaved.

The Israelite men are already familiar with eating meat from animal sacrifices; in their own wholeness-offerings (shelamim) some animal parts are burned up into smoke for God, and some of the meat was reserved for the priests and the donors and their guests to eat.9  It is not surprising that Midianites across the river from Canaan worship their gods in a similar way—or that Moses’ own father-in-law was a Midianite priest in another place, southwest of Edom.

Opening their mouths to eat and drink, the Israelite men become open not just to friendship and sex with Moabites, but to their religion as well.  They forget that the God of Israel is a jealous god, who becomes “hot with anger” when they do anything that could be interpreted as worshiping an additional god.  As usual, the God-character expresses anger by starting an epidemic.  Then God tells Moses how to stop it:

Assyrian impalements

“Take all the leaders of the people and impale them before God, across from the sun; then the anger of God will turn away from Israel.”  (Numbers 25:4)

Impaling a man kills him by making an unnatural opening in his body.  “Across from the sun” is an idiom for doing something in the open, in public.

But Moses said to the judges of Israel: “Each man, kill the men yoked to Baal-Peor.”  (Numbers 25:5)

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses orders the execution of the men who actually participated in the sacrificial feasts for the god of Peor.  Before any of the judges can take action, something else happens.

The Zeal of Pinchas, Alba Bible, 1430

But hey!  An Israelite man came up, and he brought to his kinsmen a Midianite woman, in plain sight of Moses and all the community of the children of Israel!  And they were weeping at the petach of the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw; and he rose from the middle of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came in after the man of Israel to the enclosure, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, into her “inner enclosure”, and the epidemic was halted.  (Numbers 25:6-8)

petach (פֶּתַח) = opening, entrance, doorway.

The Israelite man and the Midianite woman (identified later as Zimri, a chief of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a daughter of a Midianite chief)10 may be engaging in ritual sex for the purpose of ending the epidemic.11

The impalement of only two people, by spear, proves sufficient to calm God’s anger—perhaps because they are skewered right at the spot where an illicit entry is happening.  The epidemic comes to a halt.

*

This story is full of openings: the name of the local god, Peor/Wide Opening; the social opening of the invitation from the Midianite Moabites; the daughters of the Midianites opening their bodies to foreign men; the Israelite men opening their mouths to eat the sacrificial meat; the threat of impalement; the petach/opening to God’s Tent of Meeting; and the deadly opening Pinchas’s spear makes in the coupling couple.

The invitation from the Moabites seems to me like a peace offering, an ethical alternative to war.  Knowing the nature of the God of Israel, the Israelites who respond to this social opening are foolish to accept the meat (and sex) without checking its religious significance.  They succumb to their animal desires without thinking, but they could have thought it through and offered a counter-proposal to the Moabites for peaceful social relations without religious transgression.

The petach of the Tent of Meeting is an essential part of the portable sanctuary for the God of Israel.  The fact that the Israelites assemble in front of the petach of the tent in times of distress indicates the spiritual solidarity of the community.

The tent-sanctuary is not open for entry by anyone who has not been initiated into the service of God, so the Levites, including Pinchas, are charged with guarding its petach so no unauthorized persons enter.    Both Zimri, an Israelite from another tribe, and Kozbi, a non-Israelite, are forbidden to enter.

The God-character in this week’s Torah portion reacts as if any opening between the Israelites and the Moabites is bad, and the only solution is extermination.  First the God-character demands the execution of the Israelite bosses (or at least one ringleader).  Then in next week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, “he” orders the Israelites to go to war against the Midianites.12  When they do, they kill every Midianite man in the area, and take the women and children captive.  But Moses reminds them to kill all the Midianite women, too: every woman who “has known a man”.13  The whole project of friendly relations between the Midianites and the Israelites must be destroyed.

*

The Israelites in the Torah, like all peoples in the Ancient Near East, and like the governments of most nations today, resort to the wholesale killing of war when they cannot think of another way to resolve a difference between peoples or deal with the fear of foreigners.  Many stories in the bible portray the God-character as no better than human beings at peaceful co-existence.

Today I hear calls for eliminating people designated as foreigners, through by war, deportation, or building a wall on the border.  I also hear calls for being open to other people and celebrating our differences.

I believe there is a time to open and a time to close, but never a good time to kill.  Opening to friendships between people belonging to different groups is good.  Adopting another group’s religion, ethics, or way of life may be good only if one thinks it through and does it consciously, with one’s true self.  Being open to the possibility of God is good—but only if your idea of “God” is morally good.

Being open in a good way takes a lot of thinking.

  1. Cheshbon and Bashan. See last week’s post, Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon.
  2. The Mesopotamian prophet Bilam. See my post Balak: A Question of Anxiety.
  3. See my post Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot: How Moabites Became Midianites on why the Torah refers to the local inhabitants as both Moabites and Midianites.
  4. Isaiah 5:14.
  5. Psalm 119:131.
  6. Job 16:10.
  7. Job 29:23.
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a; Numbers Rabbah 20:23; and Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 7.  A different line of commentary is that people worshipped Baal Peor, the god of Peor, by baring their buttocks and opening their anuses to relieve themselves.  (Sifrei Bamidbar 131; Rashi, the acronym for the 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.)
  9. See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
  10. Numbers 25:14-15.
  11. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 221.
  12. Numbers 25:16-18.
  13. Numbers 31:2-18. See my post Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.

 

Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon

July 10, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet | 1 Comment

Moses asks two foreign kings to let the Israelites cross through their land in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“decree of”).  Both refuse, even though Moses promises they will stay on the road, leave fields and vineyards untouched, and pay for any water they and their livestock drink.

Route of Israelites

The king of Edom says no and sends an army to the border to bar the way.1  Apparently he does not trust the Israelites, but he prefers not to attack them.  So the Israelites circle around Edom and continue north through the unpopulated wilderness east of Moab until they reach the Arnon River.  Then Moses sends the same message to King Sichon of Cheshbon.  Sichon also refuses to let the Israelites pass through, but he attacks them at his border.  The Israelites win and conquer Sichon’s land.

And Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and in all its daughter-villages.  For Cheshbon was the town of Sichon; a king of the Amorites he was, and he had battled against the first king of Moab, and he had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon.  (Numbers 21:25-26)

Cheshbon (חֶשְׁבּוֹן) =

  1. a town about 14 miles (23 km) east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea.
  2. accounting, reckoning. (From the root verb chashav, חָשַׁב = evaluate, consider, calculate, think out.)

After explaining that Sichon’s land used to be northern Moab, the Torah portion Chukkat quotes part of an Amorite poem celebrating Sichon’s earlier victory, translating it into Hebrew.

Route of Israelites

Therefore the epic poem says:

            “Come to Cheshbon!  It was built

            and firmly established, the town of Sichon.

            Because fire went out from Cheshbon;

            Flame from the city of Sichon.

            It consumed Ar of Moab,

            The local gods of the high places of Arnon …  (Numbers 21:27-28)

Ironically, this week’s Torah portion shows that Cheshbon is not firmly established as the town of Sichon, since the Israelites conquer it on their way to the Jordan River.

The image of fire going out of a town is often used in the Hebrew Bible for an army going out to battle, consuming enemy soldiers.  Since the Amorites spoke a Semitic language closely related to ancient Hebrew, it is not surprising that the two peoples employed the same metaphor.

Perhaps King Sichon decides to attack the Israelite travelers because his victory against Moab has convinced him that his people are stronger than anyone else.  Look at the fortified town they built!

Cheshbon contested

If Sichon cannot hang on to Cheshbon, however firmly built, can the Israelites do any better?

They go on to conquer the Amorite kingdom north of Cheshbon, then camp on the east side of the Jordan River while Moses delivers the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  After Joshua leads the conquest Canaan west of the Jordan, he assigns the land east of the river, now called Gilead, to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe.  Gad gets the Cheshbon area.2

Gilead changes hands twice in the book of Judges, and is attacked a third time.  In one story, King Eglon of Moab captures the territory and holds it for 18 years until the Israelite hero Ehud brings him tribute, then assassinates him and escapes to lead the charge against the army of Moab.3

In another story, the king of Ammon (or possibly Moab) 4 makes war on Gilead for 18 years.5  The territory’s new hero, Yiftach (Jepthah in English), sends the king a message explaining that the Israelites took Gilead from Amorite kings, not from Ammon (or Moab).  He adds that even if the enemy did have a claim to the land,

When Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and her daughter-villages, and in Aroer and her daughter-villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for 300 years, then why did you not recover them during this time?  (Judges 11:26)

The king sends no reply.  Yiftach captures twenty towns and villages, and Gilead remains in the hands of Israelites.6

Gilead becomes part of David’s kingdom in the second book of Samuel.  His son Solomon assigns a governor to administer “the land of Gilead: the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of the Bashan.”  (1 Kings 4:19)

But after King Solomon’s death, Cheshbon and the rest of Gilead secede from Judah along with the territories of the other northern tribes.  They found the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria), with Jereboam as its first king.7

When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC), king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, decided to conquer Israel, he started by capturing Gilead and deporting people in the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh.8  The conquest of the northern kingdom continued under the next two Assyrian kings, with Sargon II capturing the capital city of Samaria in 722 BCE.

Israelites never ruled over Cheshbon again.

Taking account

The book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet opens with the declaration that everything is futile, because nothing a human does can make a permanent change.  The same things happen over and over again, so there is nothing new under the sun.

by Auguste Rodin, 1886

Kohelet, the narrator, explores this idea at length, analyzing the activities of humankind.

Myself, I turned [it] around in my mind to know and to scout out and seek wisdom and cheshbon.  … See, this I found, said Kohelet, one by one finding a cheshbon.  I sought further in my soul … (Ecclesiastes 7:25, 7:27)

Only see this: I found that God made humankind upright, but they themselves sought many chishbonot.  (Ecclesiastes 7:27, 7:29)

chishvonot (חִשְּׁבֺנוֹת) = plans, inventions.  (Also from the root verb chashav.)

Here Kohelet states that humans are naturally good but they invent too much.  I suspect Kohelet means inventing reasons for doing what we want.  A true cheshbon, an inner accounting and reckoning, is the means to gaining self-knowledge and wisdom, which are good for their own sake.

Everything that you find you are able to go and do, do it!  Because there is no doing nor cheshbon nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:10)

Sheol is where the spirits of the dead go.   Ecclesiastes affirms that after death no action or thought is possible; there is no afterlife in heaven or Gehenna.  You can only acquire wisdom by conducting a personal accounting while you are alive.

*

Today the place called Cheshbon is the site of an archaeological dig in Jordan.  But many Jews follow the mussar9 practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), keeping a daily record of good and bad deeds in order to improve one’s behavior.

Cheshbon as a practice of self-examination is lasting longer than Cheshbon as a town fortified for war.

  1. Numbers 20:14-21.
  2. Joshua 22:36-37.
  3. Judges 3:12-30.
  4. Most modern scholars argue that the negotiations between Yiftach and the attacking king in Judges 11:12-28 came from another source. This explains why the two leaders discuss what happened after King Sichon took the land from Moab, and Yiftach refers to Kemosh, the god of Moab rather than Ammon.  The compiler of Judges inserted Ammon to make the story fit the battle between the Israelites of Gilead and the Ammonite army.  (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
  5. Judges 10:5.
  6. Judges 11:29-33. Also see my post Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow.
  7. 1 Kings 12:1-24.
  8. 2 Kings 15:29.
  9. Mussar (מוּסַר), “moral instruction”, is a system of self-improvement developed in the 19th century CE from classic ethical texts dating back to the 11th century CE.

Korach: Bald Demands

July 2, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment

Two rebellions against Moses and Aaron are featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach: one by leaders from the tribe of Reuven,1 and one by 250 Levites and their leader, Korach.  The Torah introduces him as:

Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi …  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1)

Is it Moses (naturally bald) or Korach (shaven bald)?
(from Charles Foster Bible Pictures, 1873)

Korach (קֺרַח) = shaven bald; icy.  (Korach may be derived from the verb karach, קָרַח = shave oneself bald, or from the noun kerach, קֶרַח = ice, frost.)

After introducing both factions that are jealous of Moses’ authority, the Torah turns first to the Levites.

They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much for yourselves!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?”  (Numbers 16:3)

Korach is arguing that all the Israelites are holy, i.e. set aside for God.  So why should they take orders from Moses and Aaron?  He sees holiness as a legal right which God conferred on the children of Israel back at Mount Sinai.  But here is what God actually said:

“You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:6)

“You will be holy because I am holy …”  (Leviticus 19:2)

God did not say that the people were already holy; God predicted that they would someday become holy.  And both predictions were accompanied by rules for behavior to achieve holiness.  Holiness is a calling and a goal in the bible, not an entitlement.

Furthermore, Moses has already delegated many of his leadership roles.  He turned over administration and justice to 70 elders.2  He turned over religious rituals and offerings to the priests (Aaron and his sons).3  And he delegated most of the disassembly and reassembly of the portable sanctuary to the tribe of Levi.4   Moses’ only remaining job is to serve as God’s mouthpiece, passing on all the rules for behavior that will bring the people closer to holiness.  This is a duty he cannot delegate, since God continues to choose Moses as the only spokesperson.

But Korach and the Levites he represents want to be priests like Aaron and his sons.  They may also want to be prophets like Moses.

And Moses listened, and he fell on his face.  (Numbers 16:4)

God speaks to him while he is prostrate.5  Then Moses says to Korach:

“In the morning God will make known who is his, and who is the holy one, and who he will draw near to him.  And [God] will choose for himself the one he will draw near to him.  Do this: Take fire-pans for yourselves, Korach and all his assembly, and place fire in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow.  And the man whom God chooses will be the holy one.  [You want] too much for yourselves, sons of Levi!  …  [Already God] has drawn you close, and all your brother sons of Levi with you; so do you also seek the priesthood?”  (Numbers 16:5-7, 16:10)6

Moses discerns that Korach and the 250 Levites are really asking for priesthood for themselves, not power-sharing for everyone.  He also points out that he cannot make a decision for or against Korach and his men.  The decision is up to God.

*

Korach’s name reveals several motivations for demanding “too much”.

Lineage

Instead of last names, biblical characters identify themselves by their lineage.  Korach is “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi”.  Yitzhar (יִצְהָר) might mean “he is overhead”, which happens to be the position Korach desires.  His grandfather is Kehat, who is also the grandfather of Moses and Aaron.7

Korach may well envy his first cousin Aaron.  The descendants of Kehat are responsible for transporting the holiest objects in the sanctuary, even the ark itself—but only after the priests, Aaron and his sons, have covered them with multiple wrappings.  Only Aaron and his sons are allowed to see them uncovered.8

An ordinary Israelite might prefer not to risk death by looking at the most dangerous objects in the sanctuary.  But Korach is already carrying them, and he believes he is as holy as Aaron.  Why should he be denied a glimpse of the ark?

Baldness

We can find more clues in Korach’s first name.  Korach means either the one who has shaven himself bald, or the icy one.

Shaving part of the head was a mourning ritual in Canaan,9 although the Torah forbids it.10  Israelites are supposed to shave their heads in the Torah only as part of a purification ritual, done for one of three reasons:

1)  To re-enter the community and its religious life after recovery from a skin disease called tzara-at.11   According to the Talmud, the first reason why God struck people with tzara-at was to punish them for evil speech.12  Perhaps Korach had whispered against Moses and Aaron earlier, and only recently recovered and shaved his head.

2) To officially end a man or woman’s term as a nazir.13  A nazir vows to let their hair grow wild and abstain from all wine and grapes for a certain period.  Korach might have taken the vow of a nazir to prove his own holiness, then found that being a nazir was not enough for him.

3)  As part of the ritual of consecration for both priests and Levites, when they commence their service in the sanctuary.   All the adult Levite men were shaven and consecrated in the wilderness of Sinai so their service could begin.14  At the time of Korach’s revolt, the people have moved to the wilderness of Paran, and the Levites’ hair has had time to grow out.  Maybe Korach shaved a second time to demonstrate that he expects to be consecrated as a priest!

*

Korach’s delusions of equality with Moses and Aaron are expressed by his name.  He shares their lineage, and his given name implies that he shaves his head to achieve extra holiness.

If the Israelites had a different mission, if all they needed to do was settle down and accumulate material wealth, Korach’s demands would be more reasonable.  Why not give every Levite—or even every Israelite—an equal role in the rituals that bind the community together?

But the Israelites have a higher calling; they are supposed to dedicate their whole selves to doing what God expects.  This mission requires leaders who are willing to fall on their faces to hear God’s voice; leaders who become more holy by following God’s rules; leaders who know that only God has real power.  Leaders with humility.

I believe the whole world needs humble leaders, now more than ever.

  1. See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  2. Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:14.
  3. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  4. Numbers 3:5-36, 4:1-49.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. My translation of Numbers 16:5-7 and 16:10 uses third person masculine pronouns for God, following the original Hebrew, because a gender-neutral translation would be complicated.
  7. The father of Moses and Aaron is Amram, who is listed as a son of Kehat in Exodus 6:18-20.
  8. See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.
  9. See Isaiah 3:24, 15:2, and 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6, 47:5, and 48:37; and Ezekiel 7:18 and 27:31.
  10. Shaving for mourning is forbidden in Leviticus 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1, but God seems to encourage it in Amos 8:10 and Micah 1:16.
  11. Leviticus 14:8-9.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a.
  13. Numbers 6:18.
  14. Numbers 8:7.
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